My first meeting with a bonafide, hardbitten, uninterested NYC editor didn’t deflate my enthusiasm. My work simply held no interest for her.
Charlotte Zolotow (whom I knew as the writer of one of my favorite books, William’s Doll) was the complete opposite of the editor named N—-. She was warm, friendly, made me feel welcome, and started the conversation with “I can’t wait to see what is in that portfolio!”
The old school editors were not hesitant to show a bit of enthusiasm and encouragement to would-be prospective writers and illustrators. 1979 was the beginning of the end of the Golden Era in children’s book publishing. There were still numerous publishers, both large corporations and the smaller independent publishers such as Holiday House and Houghton Mifflin. All this would change in the course of the next few years and publishing houses began merging and becoming huge conglomerates.
Charlotte, as she had instructed me to call her, had her assistant, S—- bring us coffee and some pastries. S—-was a startling handsome and VERY New York young man. Very friendly.
Charlotte took her time looking at my portfolio. She paused over each piece that I had carefully chosen to include (hoping to highlight whatever talent I might have) and asked insightful questions as to why I had included such-and-such a piece, where did my ideas come from, and how did I see myself in the world of children’s book publishing.
She made me feel special. She made me feel that she was interested in my work.
After about twenty minutes or so. She closed my portfolio, took a sip of her coffee, and looked straight at me. What followed next were words that I would carry with me throughout my career as a children’s book writer and illustrator. Her words gave me hope.
“You are very talented,” Charlotte said. “One day you are going to be quite famous. There is that something extra in your work that is unique and appealing. However, you have no idea what this business is all about.”
She went on to tell me that I was showing set design, costume design, whimsical drawings and studies, etc. Her big question was: “Do you really want to do children’s books?”
“Yes!” I had exclaimed.
“Well, here is my suggestion: look at what is being published, familiarize yourself with what books are being published by which publishers. See if you can figure out where you might fit into the scheme of things.”
There was one small pen-and-ink drawing that I had put in my portfolio hoping that it looked like a “classic” black-and-white children’s illustration.
Charlotte opened my portfolio and tapped her finger on that small drawing, which is no larger than 5″x7″, if that.
“This is the best thing in your portfolio,” she said. “It speaks volumes. It intrigues me to ask ‘what is the story?’ I want you to see if you can see why this sketch is so magical and try to capture its essence in future sketches and artwork.”
Here is that drawing. I have it a small frame that sits in a bookcase in the Lincoln Room here at Henwoodie.
As rough as this sketch is Charlotte Zolotow saw something that appealed to her sensibility as an editor.
After we had finished talking she studied me and her next question caught me completely offguard: “May I ask what your plans are for lunch? I’d like to take you out to lunch if you’re free and talk a bit more.”
Without thinking I blurted out “I’m busy! I can’t do lunch! I have five other appointments to keep and this is my first time in New York City and I’m having lunch with Ed somewhere on Lexington Avenue!”
Charlotte laughed and said “I see. Here’s my card, check with Ed and see if he would mind terribly if the three of us had lunch.”
I thanked her for her time and took her card. She asked if I had any questions before leaving.
“Just one,” I said. “How do I get to Third Avenue from here? I need to find the offices of Macmillan.?
Charlotte laughed and asked S—- to show me to the elevator and ride down with me and show me which way Third Avenue was. Needless to say, I felt relieved and grateful and assumed that this is how everyone’s first meeting with an editor went.
In the elevator S—- told me that Charlotte must have been impressed with me to go through so much trouble. He gave me a wink, squeezed my butt, and when we reached the lobby he walked outside and pointed out the direction that I should go in order to get to Third Avenue.
Ed was waiting for me on the sidewalk but had the good sense not to come over while I was being given directions.
“Who was that?” Ed had asked.
I told him who S—- was and that I thought he must be gay and that he was VERY friendly in the elevator. As we walked toward Third Avenue I told him how my very first meeting went and told him that Charlotte had invited us out to lunch, but I had told here that we had plans.
Ed stopped dead in his tracks.
“An editor wants to take you out to lunch and you told her you were busy?”
Ed couldn’t believe his ears. He made me find a pay phone (this was decades before cell phones) and call Charlotte and tell her that I had checked my schedule and that I was free to have lunch with her, if she still wanted to.
When I called Charlotte (ten minutes after leaving her office) and explained to her that I was free to have lunch if she still wanted to. She laughed and said that would be fine, but something had come up that required her immediate attention and she wondered if S—- could meet us for lunch and fill me in a bit more as to how Harper & Row and I might be a fit.
Lunch was great! S—- was funny, had the strongest New York accent I had ever heard and regaled me and Ed with stories of his escapades at Studio 54, on Fire Island, and on the “docks”.
The rest of the day was a whirlwind of meeting with editors and art directors. Ed and I returned to Philadelphia exhausted, but pleased with my first brush with New York City publishing.